Brewery Buyouts Rock the Latest List of the Biggest American Craft Brewers

Yuengling is America's biggest craft brewer. Credit: Mike Mergen / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Now that craft beer is a $22 billion industry — and the fastest growing of all alcoholic beverages — the Brewer's Association's list of the 50 biggest American craft brewers has become as anticipated as the Fortune 500 in the beer world. The just-released 2015 snapshot shows, by volume, who's on top and who's growing fastest. Based on the buyouts of the last year, it could also predict which brewer is about to become an AB Inbev-bred millionaire.

The notable absence of Founders Brewing — the 17th largest in 2014 — stems from its partial sale to international brewer Mahou San Miguel in December of that year. The list is also marked by asterisks, denoting another four brewers that sold significant ownership stakes to the likes of Constellation Brands (Ballast Point), AB Inbev (Four Peaks, Breckenridge), and Heineken (Lagunitas). Like Founders, these brewers no long meet the Brewers Association's definition of a craft brewer: small, independent, traditional. Don't expect to see them on 2016's ranking.

Pennsylvania's D. G. Yuengling and Son topped the list again. Please note: While endless news outlets (especially in its home state) will report that Yuengling is America's top beer, they're not the best, they simply make the most beer. Yuengling, which holds the more impressive title of America's oldest brewery, stands apart from its fellow top-five brewers (unchanged from 2014) as the only operation that doesn't sell nationwide — the East Coast brand isn't sold west of Ohio. 

The biggest leaps up the list, unsurprisingly, came from brewers that made big investment deals in 2015 (or late 2014) while keeping their craft designation. Oskar Blues jumped from 24 to 14 after going into business with Fireman Capital, a private equity firm. Firestone Walker stepped up from 16 to 13 after joining forces with Duvel Moortgat USA (Boulevard and Ommegang). And Green Flash climbed from 48 to 41 by adding the smaller Alpine Brewing to its operation.

Firestone Walker's three-spot rise may seem small, but many brewers are fighting just to keep their place. While the majority of America's 4,600-plus brewers have room to expand, there's limited shelf space and tap handles for the biggest craft competitors. Dogfish Head, for example, was another brewer to take on private equity money (albeit in September  2015) but still dropped three rankings, 16 to 13. This by no means indicates that the iconic Delaware brewer is making less beer than the year before. Rather, its peers are just expanding faster.

Finally, looking at the four formerly craft brewers, we get an idea of what kind of breweries are being targeted by the world's biggest beverage companies. Lagunitas and Ballast Point sit near the top of the list, and both looked to become national players — something eased by the distribution and retail networks of their new owners. The smaller Breckenridge and Four Peaks were both acquired by AB Inbev and follow the company's apparent strategy of picking up regional and local players. While a brewery like 45-ranked Troegs, might look like an excellent opportunity for AB Inbev to claim a craft stake in Pennsylvania (for instance), plenty of owners have turned down the company's huge paydays.

Here's the complete list of 2015's biggest American craft brewers:

  1. D. G. Yuengling and Son, Inc - Pottsville, PA
  2. Boston Beer Co - Boston, MA
  3. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co - Chico, CA
  4. New Belgium Brewing Co - Fort Collins, CO
  5. Gambrinus - San Antonio, TX
  6. Lagunitas Brewing Co - Petaluma, CA
  7. Bell's Brewery, Inc - Kalamazoo, MI
  8. Deschutes Brewery- Bend, OR
  9. Minhas Craft Brewery - Monroe, WI
  10. Stone Brewing Co - Escondido, CA
  11. Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits - San Diego, CA
  12. Brooklyn Brewery - Brooklyn, NY
  13. Firestone Walker Brewing Co - Paso Robles, CA
  14. Oskar Blues Brewing Holding Co - Longmon, CO
  15. Duvel Moortgat USA - Kansas City, MO & Cooperstown, NY
  16. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery- Milton, DE
  17. Matt Brewing Co - Utica, NY
  18. SweetWater Brewing Co - Atlanta, GA
  19. Harpoon Brewery - Boston, MA
  20. New Glarus Brewing Co - New Glarus, WI
  21. Great Lakes Brewing Co - Cleveland, OH
  22. Alaskan Brewing Co. - Juneau, AK
  23. Abita Brewing Co - Abita Springs, LA
  24. Anchor Brewing Co - San Francisco, CA
  25. Stevens Point Brewery Co - Stevens Point, WI
  26. Victory Brewing Co - Downingtown, PA
  27. August Schell Brewing Co - New Ulm, MN
  28. Long Trail Brewing Co - Bridgewater Corners, VT
  29. Summit Brewing Co - Saint Paul, MN
  30. Shipyard Brewing Co - Portland, ME
  31. Full Sail Brewing Co - Hood River, OR
  32. Odell Brewing Co - Fort Collins, CO
  33. Southern Tier Brewing Co - Lakewood, NY
  34. Rogue Ales Brewery - Newport, OR
  35. 21st Amendment Brewery - Bay Area, CA
  36. Ninkasi Brewing Co - Eugene, OR
  37. Flying Dog Brewery - Frederick, MD
  38. Narragansett Brewing Co - Providence, RI
  39. Left Hand Brewing Company - Longmont, CO
  40. Uinta Brewing Co - Salt Lake City, UT
  41. Green Flash Brewing Co - San Diego, CA
  42. Allagash Brewing Co - Portland, ME
  43. Lost Coast Brewery - Eureka, CA
  44. Bear Republic Brewing Co - Cloverdale, CA
  45. Troegs Brewing Co - Hershey, PA
  46. Karl Strauss Brewing Co - San Diego, CA
  47. Breckenridge Brewery* - Littleton, CO
  48. North Coast Brewing Co Inc. - Fort Bragg, CA
  49. Four Peaks Brewing Co - Tempe, AZ
  50. Revolution Brewing Co - Chicago, IL

*Craft volume pro-rated in 2015 or will be pro-rated/exiting craft brewer data set in 2016